At 41 and with a nasty divorce in her rearview mirror, Nefertari Hayes packed up all her belongings, hopped in her car and drove the 1,200 miles from Houston to St. Paul.

Hayes moved in with her mother, a recovering heroin addict, hoping for a better life.

She never got it.

Unable to find steady work, Hayes said her relationship with her mother started unraveling after the women were in a car accident that totaled her vehicle. The final straw came when her mother began using drugs again, and Hayes moved out.

"How do you get to the point," she wondered aloud recently, "where you have nobody on your team?"

With no job, no car and nowhere to turn, Hayes wound up at an overnight homeless shelter at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale. The shelter, called Hope for the Journey Home, is part of a patchwork of churches and nonprofit organizations in Washington County that provides services to the homeless, ranging from emergency shelter to long-term transitional housing. The network also includes St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, where staff members assist families in setting up a plan to get back on their feet.

In its three years of existence, the shelter assistance program, which places prescreened families in motels and at Guardian Angels, has helped 1,242 people, officials said. About 72 families have been housed overnight at the Journey Home shelter since it opened in late 2012.

Hayes and her two youngest children have called the shelter their home since February.

Like others who have stayed there, Hayes had to go through an intensive screening process aimed at weeding out all but those with the greatest need. For example, single men with no children and those with criminal records are referred to the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, said Pastor Sarah Breckenridge, who oversees the homeless program at St. Andrew's.

Hayes' story, homeless advocates say, is typical of those seeking overnight shelter across Washington County. Many are affected by mental illness or substance abuse, or are just a paycheck or two away from homelessness.

Bill Lightner, a project manager at the Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), said that homelessness is a growing problem in the suburbs, given a lack of affordable housing and low wages.

Washington County has the highest median rent in the seven metro counties at $1,045 a month, compared with a metrowide median of $858, according to a recent HRA report.

Lightner said the county also has one of the highest housing cost burdens in the state, with 47 percent of renters paying more than 30 percent of their income toward a mortgage or rent. For renters earning less than $35,000 a year, that percentage rose to 82 percent, Lightner said at a recent meeting of the county's Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program Advisory Committee.

"You have the combination of the highest rental costs, combined with the least amount of affordable housing available, so it's a recipe for disaster," said Trisha Kauffman, executive director of Solid Ground (formerly East Metro Women's Council), a White Bear Lake-based homeless advocacy group.

Daily routine

Hayes said she is simply grateful for the help.

She rises every morning, tidies up the room she shares with her children and is out the door by 9 a.m. A van takes her to St. Andrew's, where she meets with a caseworker, who helps her search for work and permanent housing.

On a recent afternoon, Hayes typed away on one of the computers in Journey Home's airy resource center. A few screens over, another shelter resident, Aloy Ezeagwula, 61, was also scouring the Internet for work.

Ezeagwula, a widower, was in deep despair when a social worker at his sons' elementary school referred him to St. Andrew's in February. At that point, he and his twin 10-year-old boys and daughter, 17, had no place to go after a dispute with his sister-in-law's family.

"I was desperately looking for a refuge, a shelter," he said.

Hayes knows the feeling.

"Some people may think it's a small thing," she said of the shelter program, "but when you have nothing, it's the world."